Super-Cyclone Amphan Causes Destruction in Bangladesh and India

  • At least 95 deaths have been reported, along with the displacement of millions of people. Five million people in Bangladesh are left without power, while many more are left without homes and jobs.
  • Despite relief teams working to handle the situation, the coronavirus pandemic has made the situation extremely complicated.
  • Both the countries are faced with the challenge of dealing with the disaster as well as the pandemic.

On May 16, Bangladesh and India were hit by a massive cyclone that remained till May 21 and caused vast destruction. At least 95 people have been killed, while the death toll is predicted to rise as help reaches villages that are still cut off due to the floodwater. Many coastal villages were severely damaged. Power lines were torn down, and flooding ruined vast areas of land.

Graphic showing how cyclones can create storm surges which flood coastal areas.

Cyclones are an annual natural hazard for the Bay of Bengal coast. However, Amphan was the first “super cyclone” to develop in this region since 1999. In 1970, half a million people lost their lives in Bangladesh, which is home to 160 million people.

The Chief Minister of West Bengal, India, reported that at least 72 people died. The majority of them were either electrocuted or killed by trees that were uprooted by the strong winds that blew at up to 120 miles/hour. In Bangladesh, the official death toll was reported to be 16.

Super-cyclone Amphan was the Bay of Bengal’s fiercest storm in the whole century. It brought along heavy gales and the threat of deadly flooding and storm surges. It made landfall at 4 pm local time on Wednesday, May 16. Accompanied by strong winds, it caused storm surges of about 17 ft. Following that, it moved towards one of India’s largest cities, Kolkata. By Wednesday afternoon, reports of five deaths had been received. Two of these occurred in Bangladesh, while the remaining three were in the Indian state of West Bengal.

Bangladesh badly affected by the cyclone

In Bangladesh alone, above 2 million people had to be evacuated from their homes. Apart from that, about half a million others in Odisha and West Bengal were relocated from vulnerable low-lying areas to safer shelters. Cyclone Amphan’s massive impact makes it only the second “super cyclone” to develop in the Bay of Bengal, ever since records are kept. For providing humanitarian assistance to those affected, the Indian navy has been put on high alert.

A picture of the eye of the storm. The rainfall and heavy winds in North 24 Parganas.

According to the director-general of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), SN Pradhan the cyclone developed quickly and progressed across Odisha and Bengal. He said that this was another challenging aspect of the new normal and required effective disaster management, referring to the Covid-19 pandemic. He also stated that in light of the pandemic, all rescue and disaster management teams were equipped with personal protective equipment (PPE).

Managing the crisis

Flood water destroyed embarkments around an island in the Noakhali district of Bangladesh and surged into homes, causing destruction of above 500 of them. Similarly, surging waters breached the embarkments in the Sundarban delta in West Bengal, where the surge is expected to up to 15km of land., according to weather authorities.

There is a widespread need for evacuation, but the coronavirus virus pandemic has complicated the situation further. The need to follow strict social distancing precautions to prevent the spread of the virus has hampered the evacuation efforts. The fact that the number of infected people in the country is still on the rise is not helping the situation. In fact, the fear of contracting the virus has also caused several people to refuse to leave their homes and move to shelters.

The authorities in Bangladesh and India are applying strategies to handle both situations simultaneously. Extra shelter space is being used to reduce crowding to comply with physical distancing precautions. Extra sanitizer and soap are being provided while wearing a face mask has been made compulsory.

Bangladesh’s junior disaster management minister, Enamur Rahman, said that social distancing is being maintained in the shelters. Where there were about 5,000 cyclone centers, there are now above 12,000.

A picture of a House Church of the BLCM. Source: Rev. Banarjee Monotosh.

According to the Catholic Relief Services aid group, the locals were torn between braving the terrifying cyclone by staying put, or risking getting infected by the virus in a shelter.

The refugee and the pandemic crises make the situation worse

306 Rohingya were moved from Bhasan Char to the Cox’s Bazaar refugee camps. Bhasan Char is a flood-prone island located in the Bay of Bengal. There has been a controversy that the Bangladeshi government was moving some refuges to cyclone centers. Amnesty International requested governments to look out for more than 1,00 Rohingya refugees who are at risk of being stranded at sea as they were using makeshift vessels. They were using unreliable fishing trawlers and rickety boats to make a dangerous journey to go towards a hopefully better life. The organization urged the Bangladeshi government and others to take all the necessary actions to save the lives of these people.

People also fear that as a result of the storm, there will be large-scale destruction in the Sundarbans forest reserve. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site famous for its mangrove forest and protected population of Bengal tigers, which are an endangered species. It lies across the borders of Bangladesh and India. Several endangered species, including 96 protected tigers, have been kept here. However, Bangladesh officials are still waiting for accurate reports about the extent of the damage.

The area surrounding the India-Bangladesh border is ecologically fragile. It is famous for lush mangrove forests that are also a crucial tiger habitat.

The storm surged caused by this super cyclone can go up to 5 meters, which is enough to uproot communication towers, swamp mud dwellings along the coast, and flood railway lines and roads.

Bangladesh has a low-lying coast that is home to around 30 million people. On the other hand, India’s eastern areas are regularly destructed by cyclones, which have resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths in the past few decades.

In 1991, 139,000 people lost their lives when Bangladesh was hit by tornadoes, a typhoon, and floods. Authorities in Bangladesh are worried that Amphan may prove to be the most powerful storm after Cyclone Sidr that killed about 3,500 people in 2007.

A picture of the school of the BLCM destroyed by the cyclone. Source: Rev. Banarjee Monotosh.

Despite the being out of the predicted path of the storm, there are many fears for the wellbeing of Rohingya refugees, a million of whom have come from Myanmar to live in south-eastern Bangladesh. They reside in flimsy makeshift shacks set up in large camps.

The very first Covid-19 cases were detected here in the second week of May, and within days there were more than six confirmed cases.

The cyclone has left millions without power in Bangladesh and India. The authorities organized mass evacuations prior to the hitting of the cyclone, which was effective in saving many lives. However, the entire extent of the casualties and property destruction can only be identified after communications are restored in the affected areas.

India’s hard-hit state was West Bengal, where locals woke up to streets flooded with water and their cars submerged up to the window level. Even the airport was inundated.

Large-scale destruction

There has been massive destruction in Bangladesh, and many unfortunate casualties. Official reports tell that the casualties included a 75-year-old man and a five-year-old boy, both of whom were hit by falling trees. A cyclone emergency volunteer also drowned.

According to the United Nations office in Bangladesh, an estimated 10 million people have been affected by this cyclone, while about 500,000 lost their homes.

Authorities have stated that Amphan is one of the most intense cyclones to hit the country in a decade, causing an expected loss of above $1bn.

At present, the cyclone’s damage is still widespread. About five million people have their power supplies cut off. Bangladesh has suffered substantial damage, particularly in its Sundarbans mangrove forest that was directly hit. Many thousand houses have been swept away by the tidal surge. There have been huge losses as people lost fisheries and croplands. A good number of people in this area depend on aquaculture like shrimp culture for their livelihood, so they have been left jobless due to the destruction.

People are relieved that the timely evacuation of over three million people from the affected area’s coastal villages has prevented terrible death tolls that have been witnessed in the part storms. However, this relief was hampered by fears of the spread of the Covid-19 infection across crowded shelters.

Despite putting safety precautions in place, it has proved virtually impossible to implement them effectively because of the need for measures for dealing with the impact of the cyclone. To escape from the effects of the cyclones, families cramped into government buildings, reinforced schools and community halls, disregarding social distancing precautions in an attempt to save themselves from the cyclone.

While several national disaster and rescue teams are trying their best to carry out relief efforts, the situation is even more difficult to handle due to the coronavirus pandemic restrictions. Particularly, difficulties are arising in evacuating people to cyclone shelters.

Fierce winds and heavy rains

Even though the cyclone weakened while moving along coastal Bangladesh, it still caused fierce winds and heavy rains in Cox’s Bazaar, the district home to almost one million Rohingya refugees who hail from Myanmar.

The cyclone came with a storm surge that spread inland. A storm surge is a massive wall of ocean water in large weather systems that result in killing many people and animals. In the southwestern region of Bangladesh, super-cyclone caused a five feet surge that destroyed embankments and inundated farmland.

Timely evacuations and advanced technology improve the situation

The intensity and frequency of storms in Bangladesh have increased, partly due to global warming and climate change. Nevertheless, the number of casualties has reduced over the years, thanks to better technology, faster evacuations, and more shelters.

Due to super cyclone Amphan, Bangladesh authorities have reported that about 2.4 million people and above half a million livestock have been brought to shelters until now. In the neighboring country, above 650,000 people were evacuated in the states of Odisha and West Bengal.

Super-cyclone Amphan and the Covid-19 pandemic – a tale of two disasters

Cyclone Amphan wreaked havoc in the coastal regions of India and Bangladesh, and despite being weakened now, it is still currently making its way north through Bangladesh and is now moving towards Bhutan. The death toll continues to rise while critical infrastructure, homes, crops, and means of livelihood remain destroyed.

However, this is not the only battle that the countries are fighting against nature right now. Apart from clearing up the mess caused by the cyclone, both these countries are also faced with a challenge that every country is facing at this point in time – dealing with the spread of the coronavirus.

India is a middle-income country that has alarmingly high poverty levels. There have been more than 100,000 confirmed cases of the disease, along with almost 4,000 deaths. Alternately, Bangladesh is also one of the poorest countries in the world. It has nearly 27,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19, as well as about 400 deaths.

Rev. Banarjee Monotosh ministering a Divine Service at his church. Source: BLCM.

Unfortunately, both these countries have public health systems and infrastructures that are extremely weak and ineffective. They have been having a hard time implementing measures like mass-testing due to a shortage of resources. As expected, imposing social distancing is also a challenge because many families in these countries reside in crowded living conditions. The mass evacuations needed due to Cyclone Amphan are only adding to the difficulty.

Only time will tell the real extent of the damage caused by Cyclone Amphan, but for now, the situation doesn’t look very hopeful. While the world struggles to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, two of the poorest nations of the world are faced with an additional challenge of recovering from this disaster.

Developing Our World is partnering with Bangladesh Lutheran Church Mission in order to seek relief, rehabilitation, and development, specially in Jessore and Sathkhira Districts, where there are home churches and school. They are urgent need to food, hygiene and fist aid materials. The two house churches also are seeking support in order to be rebuild. We are raining $5k to help with relief and any support is appreciated. If you are willing to help, please, click here. If you want more information, contact us.

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Miguel Torneire

Is the founder and the Executive Director of Developing Our World, an organization that seeks to put holistic community development into action. He loves Jesus! And, he is a husband, a father, a Lutheran Pastor, a Missionary, an Author, a flamenguista (a supporter of Clube de Regatas do Flamengo soccer team), and a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner.

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